(MCT) CLEVELAND — To most of his neighbors, Ariel Castro was an upbeat presence on a rundown street, a cheerful schoolbus driver who befriended local kids and popped into barbecues to say hello and have a beer.
On Tuesday, they sought to reconcile that image with accusations that Castro had imprisoned three young women, abducted in 2002, 2003 and 2004, inside his slightly dilapidated house with the American flag out front.
“I guess he had a great mask to cover a monster,” Juan Perez, who lives two doors down from Castro, said Tuesday.
Colorful balloons flew outside nearby homes to celebrate the release of the three women, who were rescued Monday when one of them escaped and summoned help. On the stretch of Seymour Avenue where Castro, 52, lived, police tape blocked access. Investigators in white scrubs and protective booties removed items from the house and towed away vehicles as police and the FBI gathered evidence in anticipation of filing charges against Castro and his brothers, Pedro, 54, and Onil, 50. That was expected to happen Wednesday.
As the three men remained in custody, the three women — Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus, and Michelle Knight—began adjusting to freedom with family and friends who had fought to keep them from being forgotten as the years slipped by.
Berry’s sister, Beth Serrano, had held a vigil for her sister just a few weeks ago at the Burger King where she was last seen. “She never gave up,” said Eva Fonseca, 27, who brought balloons to Serrano’s house Tuesday. Berry’s mother, Louwana Miller, died in 2006, never knowing what had become of her daughter, who was 16 when she vanished on April 21, 2003.
Every few months, Serrano would put fresh yellow ribbons on her porch and attach a new one to the “missing” poster tacked to a tree outside her home.
Gina DeJesus’ family kept a banner outside their home with her description, right down to her birthmarks and pierced ears, and a picture of Gina, who was 14 when she disappeared on April 2, 2004.
“If you don’t believe in miracles, I suggest you think again,” DeJesus’ aunt, Sandra Ruiz, told reporters outside the family home, where the banner was joined by bouquets of colorful flowers, balloons, and a “Welcome home Gina” sign. “It’s like a dream,” her older brother Ricardo said. “It was nine years. Nine long years.”
The DeJesus family held a vigil every Friday after DeJesus went missing, walking the route that she would have walked. As time went by, the frequency of the vigils dropped to twice a month, then once a year on the anniversary of her disappearance. Most of the vigils would list DeJesus and Berry, who became household names in a city haunted by the disappearance of the teenagers.
Knight, who was 20 when she was last seen on Aug. 23, 2002, did not capture the same level of attention as the younger girls. Her grandmother, Deborah Knight, told The Cleveland Plain Dealer that family members assumed Michelle had left on her own after losing custody of a young son. But Knight’s mother, Barbara Knight, who now lives in Florida, told the paper she never gave up looking for her daughter and would return to Cleveland long after police had given up the search to post fliers on her own.
All three were on or near busy Lorain Avenue when they were abducted, about five miles from Castro’s house and even closer to their own homes. Berry fled Castro’s home with a 6-year-old girl, who police believe was born to her during her captivity.
After being hospitalized overnight, the three were released Tuesday but remained out of sight of the crowds who spilled into the streets and erupted in cheers after Berry’s startling 911 call Monday evening set off the chain of events that culminated in the Castro brothers’ arrests.
“Help me! I’m Amanda Berry!” the young woman, her voice shaking, said in a breathless call at 5:52 p.m., after she bolted from Castro’s house and ran to a neighbor’s house. “I’ve been kidnapped and been missing for 10 years. I am here, I’m free now,” she told the dispatcher.
At the same time, neighbor Charles Ramsey, who had heard Berry’s cries from the Castro home and kicked in the front door to free her, made his own call to 911. “She needs everything,” the astonished Ramsey told the dispatcher when asked if Berry needed an ambulance. “She’s in a panic. I think she’s been kidnapped.”
Within hours, the Castros were arrested at a McDonald’s restaurant and their alleged victims’ families had been notified, but the mystery of the last decade was far from resolved. Among questions police and the FBI have to answer are whether the Castros can shed light on other missing person cases; whether police who went to the Castro home missed opportunities to rescue the women; and whether neighbors attempted to alert police of a naked woman in Castro’s yard years ago and were ignored.
The case conjured memories of Jaycee Lee Dugard, who was held captive in the Antioch, Calif., home of a convicted sex offender for 18 years even as police visited the property without noticing anything amiss.
Nina Samoylicz, who lives a few doors down from Castro, told CNN that she, her sister and a friend spotted a naked woman in his yard about two years ago. “We thought it was weird so we called the cops. They thought we were playing,” Samoylicz told CNN. “They didn’t believe us.”
Perez said he and his sister had heard a blood-curdling scream coming from Castro’s house about three years ago and called police. “There’s a difference between a scream that is someone playing, and one that raises your hair and your goosebumps. That’s what that one was,” said Perez, adding that officers came to investigate but did not find anything.
At a news conference, the city’s deputy police chief, Ed Tomba, defended the department’s handling of the investigation and called the police officers’ policies “solid.” “Every single lead was followed up no matter how small,” he said. “We dug up a couple of backyards. We recanvassed neighborhoods. We had vigils.”
Cleveland’s director of public safety, Martin L. Flask, said records show police went to Castro’s house once in 2000—before the three were taken—and again in 2004, but neither visit was in response to a neighbor’s call. In March 2000, Castro called police to report a fight in the street; in 2004, officers visited the address after Castro, a schoolbus driver at the time, left a child on a bus, apparently inadvertently. Officers were “unsuccessful” at contacting anyone in the home, said Flask, adding that no charges were filed against Castro in the incident.
The Cleveland Plain Dealer reported that a 2005 court filing outlined domestic abuse allegations accusing Castro of beating up his former wife, Grimilda Figueroa. The beatings left her with two broken noses, broken ribs, a knocked-out tooth, dislocated shoulders and a blood clot on the brain, the Plain Dealer reported. Figueroa died in 2012. Her attorney did not respond to a telephone message.
At least one of Castro’s daughters lives near her father, but she did not return telephone calls seeking comment, and a “No Press” sign was posted Tuesday outside her home. On her Instagram site, the daughter five months ago posted the same picture of Ariel Castro that police released – showing a smiling man with a beard and wearing a black turtleneck — along with the comment: “i love my dad.”
One of Ariel Castro’s neighbors, Israel Lugo, reminisced Tuesday about the man he thought he knew. “He’s not a friend anymore,” he said of Castro, who others on the street also recalled as a friendly presence. Lugo also remembered Pedro Castro as a “cool old guy” who would pedal his bike around the west side of Cleveland, drinking wine.
Julio Castro, the uncle of the Castro brothers, said he was stunned to hear of the accusations. He has owned a corner store down the street from Ariel Castro’s house for 44 years, and described him as a “happy go lucky” man who played bass in a local band. He was one of his favorite nephews, said Castro, who had photos of missing girls up in his store and who rushed down Seymour Avenue on Monday after someone came into the store and told him that one of the girls had been found.
“I ran over there, happy, only to find they were taking the people out of my nephew’s house,” Castro said.
On Tuesday, as a tow truck pulled a maroon Jeep and a red Toyota pickup truck away from Ariel Castro’s house, a few people in the crowd of onlookers cried: “Burn it up!”
Semuels reported from Cleveland and Susman from New York. Times staff writer Matt Pearce in Los Angeles contributed to this report.
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